COLUMN: New Untapped Cincinnati effort aims to fill manufacturing jobs with 'returning citizens'

'We all have dreams and aspirations'

CINCINNATI — For Terry Segerberg, it started after she saw what prison did to her dear friend's family.

Her friend's son spent a lot of time in San Quentin State Prison in California.

"When he got out, and when he wanted to get married and have a house and have a family and when I saw how hard all that was — it just opened my eyes," Segerberg said. She's the CEO of Mesa Industries, a manufacturing company with locations in Cincinnati, California and Texas. "I thought, 'Wow. This is horrible.'"

That's when Mesa Industries stopped asking the question that prevents so many people like her friend's son from getting jobs: "Do you have a criminal record?"

Mesa Industries hires people based on their skills and attitudes, she said. The company doesn’t worry as much about an employee's past.

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"We all have dreams and aspirations," Segerberg told a roomful of business people gathered at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber recently. "And because we made a mistake and got caught doesn't mean we don't have a right to pursue those dreams and aspirations."

I sat in that roomful of executives and thought to myself: Could it be this simple?

Manufacturing companies across Greater Cincinnati have jobs to fill. Men and women who have served time in prison — ex-offenders who prefer to be called returning citizens — need good jobs to rebuild their lives and support their families.

Could both problems be solved if more companies were like Mesa Industries?

That's the idea behind Untapped Cincinnati, the latest initiative to come out of Leadership Action.

Speaking the Language of Business

Leadership Action is a leadership development program designed for senior executives and operated by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. I attended the Leadership Action graduation event March 17 where Segerberg spoke and the program's participants unveiled Untapped Cincinnati.

The goal of the initiative is to enhance the work of Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, a nonprofit started in 2015 with a goal of convincing more local companies to hire returning citizens and give them a chance to rebuild their lives.

The executives in Leadership Action want to reach out more directly to business owners and managers with hiring authority to answer their questions about the risks and rewards involved with hiring people who have criminal records, said Dan Hurley, director of the chamber's Leadership Cincinnati and Leadership Action programs.

DeAnna Hoskins talks about Untapped Cincinnati.

The group is planning a workshop in mid-June to do that with the goal of designing a program that can be repeated several times a year, Hurley said.

"We felt that a program that's birthed inside the chamber would be able to better reach out to business people and speak the language," he said.

Other programs and organizations in town work more directly with returning citizens themselves, educating them about the expectations that companies have and helping them make connections with the businesses around town that are willing to give them a chance.

St. Vincent de Paul of Cincinnati and the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati both have such programs. So does Cincinnati Works, the Downtown-based nonprofit that believes in the power of good-paying jobs to lift people out of poverty.

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But there are far more returning citizens who need jobs than those programs can help on their own.

In Hamilton County alone, 2,200 men and women return each year from state incarceration, said DeAnna Hoskins, director of Hamilton County's Office of Reentry and a member of the Leadership Action class that developed the Untapped Cincinnati initiative.

The average age of the people returning from prison is 31, she said, and the average sentence is two years.

Hoskins encouraged the business people at the chamber's offices on March 17 to think hard about giving more of those 2,200 men and women a second chance through a job.

"Previously incarcerated individuals are eager, motivated, committed and loyal," Hoskins told the group. "It's just good business sense for our community. It's almost a public safety issue and resolution."

Hire Who They Are Today

That makes sense to me.

St. Vincent de Paul's Dominic Duren told me last year about his own experience. When he had trouble getting a legitimate job after serving 12 years in prison, Duren told me that he gave up briefly and started selling crack cocaine again to make money to support his family.

He didn't get caught, though, and he quickly decided to end that life.

Still, I don't think it's reasonable to expect businesses to hire people just so they don't commit crimes again. That's not why they're in business.

Dominic Duren

There are some companies — like Mesa Industries, Nehemiah Manufacturing in the West End and M.A. Folkes Company in Hamilton — that have had great success hiring people who have served time in prison.

But there are many other business owners with questions about whether returning citizens' past behaviors could predict the future. And they wonder if something does go wrong, would the business be liable?

Those are the questions that Untapped Cincinnati wants to answer.

At the March 17 event, Sasha Appatova, director of the Second Chance Legal Clinics at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, was there to do just that.

For one thing, she said, employers rarely get sued for "negligent hiring liability" — the term for when an employee does something to hurt a customer and the customer blames the company for hiring the employee in the first place.

But if that's still a concern, Ohio has legal certificates that ex-offenders can earn to ensure that companies cannot be sued for that, she said.

Another benefit is that businesses can qualify for tax credits for hiring ex-offenders, she said.

But Appatova's most important message was that companies should think hard about what kind of criminal records truly would be a problem for the jobs they are trying to fill.

Ohio state law prohibits ex-offenders from working in hundreds of types of jobs. That means thousands of people are counting on other companies — that aren't prohibited — for opportunities.

"Interview the person to look for their qualifications," she said. "You're hiring a skilled, qualified worker. Allow them an opportunity to explain their records. And keep in mind that you're hiring who they are today."

If our community is serious about reducing childhood poverty, that will mean making sure their parents have the opportunity to work at jobs with good wages.

Manufacturing companies have those jobs, and they need loyal workers to fill them.

The people behind Untapped Cincinnati and Beacon of Hope understand it won't be simple to convince all those companies to hire returning citizens to fill their jobs.

But they also know it shouldn't be so difficult for so many people in our community to get a second chance.

The Untapped Cincinnati event on March 17.

For more information about Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, click here.

For more information about Leadership Action, click here.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 17 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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